This week marks Banned Books Week, the American Library Association’s (ALA’s) annual celebration of the freedom to read — but this year feels more like a call to action than a celebration. Book bans and other attempts at censorship, largely targeting the LGBTQ and other marginalized communities, are raging across the country.
Between January 1 and August 31, 2022, the ALA documented 681 attempts to ban or restrict a total of 1,651 unique titles — already superseding 2021’s 1,597 titles and on track to pass its 729 attempts, the highest number since ALA began tracking the numbers more than 20 years ago. Additionally, more than 70 percent of the attempts in 2022 involved multiple titles; previously, the vast majority only sought to remove or restrict a single book.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the ALA’s director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom, told the New York Times that “It represents an escalation, and we’re truly fearful that at some point we will see a librarian arrested for providing constitutionally protected books on disfavored topics.” Caldwell-Stone said librarians are “being threatened with prosecution, attacked on social media, harassed for simply doing their jobs by trying to meet the information needs of their communities.”
During the 2021-2022 school year in Pennsylvania, 457 book bans occurred in 11 school districts, according to a recent study from PEN America. This past June, the Pa. State Senate education committee voted in favor of a bill that would require parents to be notified and have the option of opting out of their child having access to books in libraries and classroom materials that contain same-gender relationships and LGBTQ references.
Books with LGBTQ content are among the most frequently challenged. The ALA’s latest annual list of the Top 10 Most Challenged Books includes five books targeted for “LGBTQ+ content,” including the number one book, “Gender Queer,” by Maia Kobabe, a memoir about growing up nonbinary and asexual. Six of the Top 10 books also had protagonists of color.
“The unprecedented number of challenges we’re seeing already this year reflects coordinated, national efforts to silence marginalized or historically underrepresented voices and deprive all of us — young people, in particular — of the chance to explore a world beyond the confines of personal experience,” said ALA President Lessa Kananiʻopua Pelayo-Lozada.
The study by PEN America, which pulled data from July 2021 to June 2022, found 2,532 book bans and restrictions — 40 percent including people of color as protagonists or prominent secondary characters; 21 percent directly addressing race and racism; and 41 percent explicitly addressing LGBTQ themes or having LGBTQ protagonists or prominent secondary characters. Texas had the most bans (801), followed by Florida and Pennsylvania, but bans had occurred in a total of 32 states and 138 school districts.
These censorship efforts are taking place alongside nationwide legislative attacks on LGBTQ youth. Three bills censoring LGBTQ content in schools were signed into law in 2022, in Florida, Alabama, and South Dakota, according to HRC. More than 70 other discriminatory education bills were introduced across the country aimed at preventing classroom discussion of LGBTQ or other marginalized people and issues. These include Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act” (HB 7) that was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). Additionally, more than 100 bills this year have targeted transgender youth via bans on affirming health care, bathroom access, sports participation, and more.
The same national conservative organizations are behind many of these legislative and book banning efforts, according to GLAAD. If we look at the books being targeted, too, which include picture books that simply show LGBTQ people and families in everyday situations, it’s clear that the goal is often not just to block young adult books like “Gender Queer” that mention sex and sexuality. It’s also to censor any depiction, however innocuous, of LGBTQ lives. This is nothing new; Lesléa Newman’s 1989 picture book “Heather Has Two Mommies” has faced challenges since shortly after its publication. Coupled with the broader legislative attacks against LGBTQ youth, however, today’s challenges form part of an ominous threat both to first amendment rights and to LGBTQ children, youth, and families.
There are signs of hope, however. In Texas, the Austin City Council unanimously adopted a resolution earlier this month promoting the ALA’s Freedom to Read Statement, opposing book bans, and supporting the Austin Public Library’s materials-selection policy. And after community members in Jamestown, Michigan, voted to defund the public library over LGBTQ books on its shelves, others launched a GoFundMe campaign that has raised over $260,000 for the library.
Students, parents, librarians, and other community members are also speaking out against bans and challenges elsewhere, sometimes with success. Organizations like the ALA, ACLU, EveryLibrary, GLAAD, National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), FReadom Fighters, Red Wine & Blue, and others are also taking action and providing resources to fight censorship.
Additionally, LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books continue to be published in record numbers. People are also finding innovative ways to connect children with these and other diverse books. The Brooklyn Public Library is letting young people ages 13-21, throughout the U.S., apply for a free eCard to access the library’s full eBook collection and learning databases. In San Francisco, two educators are launching a mobile bookshop that will not only sell LGBTQ-inclusive books, but also host story times, youth book clubs, and community events, sometimes in partnership with local schools (for more information, visit OutandAboutBookshop on Instagram). And in Rhode Island, after some parents called for removal of “Gender Queer” from area high schools, several local authors developed “We Are ALL Readers,” a weeklong festival last April celebrating diversity in children’s literature. A second one is planned for April 2023.
How can we help address and prevent book bans and other forms of censorship?
- Confidentially report censorship attempts to the ALA (ala.org) and/or to NCAC (ncac.org).
- Visit Unite Against Book Bans (uniteagainstbookbans.org), an ALA-led coalition that includes LGBTQ organizations, publishers, and others, for talking points, suggested actions, and more resources.
- Participate in town, school board, and library meetings. Vote even in purely local elections.
- Consider running for school and library boards yourself.
- Donate to organizations fighting book bans, if your means allow.
- Recommend books about LGBTQ and other marginalized people to your local libraries to show there is community support and need for them.
- Leave reviews for LGBTQ-inclusive children’s and young adult books on Amazon, Goodreads, and similar sites to counter reviews that claim they are inappropriate.
Fighting censorship will take much more than this one week — but this is a good time to renew (as the librarians would say) our efforts.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory, with a searchable database of 1000+ LGBTQ family books, music, and more.